The Bear Steps In: Russia’s
Expanding Military Presence in Syria
By Jonathan Spyer
The Jerusalem Post
September 12, 2015
The current increase of the Russian
military presence in northwest Syria is a function of the
declining military fortunes of the Assad regime. It represents a quantitative,
rather than qualitative, change in the nature of the Russian engagement in
Moscow's goal throughout the
conflict has been to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power by all means
necessary. The ends remain the same. But as the situation on the ground changes,
so the Russian means employed to achieve this goal must change with it.
Since the outset of the Syrian
civil war, the key problem for Assad has been manpower. Against a Sunni Arab
rebellion with a vast pool of potential fighters from Syria's 60 percent Sunni
Arab majority and from among foreign volunteers, the regime has been forced to
draw ever deeper from a far shallower base.
At the outset of the conflict, the
Syrian Arab Army was on paper a huge force – of 220,000 regular soldiers plus
an additional 280,000 reserves. But the vast majority of this army was unusable
by the dictator. This is because it consisted overwhelmingly of Sunni
conscripts, whose trustworthiness from the regime's point of view was seriously
in doubt. Since then, the army has shrunk in size from attrition, desertion and
The story of the last four years
has been the attempt by Assad and his allies to offset the reality of
insufficient manpower for the task at hand.
This has been achieved by two
First, the regime has chosen to
retreat from large swathes of the country, in order to be able to more
effectively hold the essential areas it has to maintain with its limited
numbers. The abandonment of the country's east and north led to the emergence of
the areas of control held by Kurdish, Sunni Arab rebel, and later al-Qaida and
Islamic State forces in these areas.
But of course retreating in order
to consolidate is a strategy that can be pursued only so far. At a certain
point, the area remaining becomes no longer viable for the purpose intended –
namely, the preservation of the regime in a form that can guarantee the needs of
its Russian and Iranian backers, and the relative security of the ruling elite
itself and to a lesser extent of the population which relies on it and upon
which it relies.
To offset the arrival at this
point, Assad and his friends have striven in ever more creative ways to put
sufficient men in the field, and to maintain the edge in military equipment
which could hold back the masses of the lightly armed rebels.
There were the hastily assembled
Alawi irregulars of the "shabiha." Then an increasing commitment of
Iranian regional assets – including the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi'ite
militia forces. Then there was the Iranian-trained National Defense Forces. In
recent months, northwest Syria has witnessed the arrival of
"volunteers" from as far afield as the Hazara Shi'ite communities of
Afghanistan (paid for by Tehran).
Despite all this effort, the
rebels have, since the spring, been pushing westward toward Latakia province.
If the rebels reach Latakia, there
is nowhere left to retreat to. The regime and its allies must hold the province
or face defeat. The appearance of apparently Russian-crewed BTR-82A APCs on the
Latakia battlefield appears to be testimony to Russia's awareness of this –
and its willingness to dig deeper for Assad – even if this means the direct
deployment of Russian personnel on the battlefield in a limited way.
The apparent deployment of a
growing force of the Russian army's 810th Independent Marine Brigade at and
around the naval depot of Tartus in Latakia province offers further evidence of
this commitment, as well as a pointer to the interests in Syria that Moscow
regards as vital.
The bolder claims of Russian
Pchela 1T UAVs and even Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets over the skies of the Idlib
battlefield are not yet confirmed.
But the respected Ruslanleviev
Russian investigative website found the evidence regarding the APCs and the
marines around Tartus to be persuasive.
There is a reason why the rebel
march toward Latakia cannot simply be absorbed by the regime as a further
tactical withdrawal, analogous to earlier retreats from Hasakah, Quneitra, most
of Deraa, Aleppo, Idlib and so on.
Latakia province is the heartland
of the Syrian Alawi community. It is a place where regime supporters have been
able to convince themselves for most of the last four years that here, at least,
they were safe.
If the rebels break through on the
al-Ghab Plain, and the front line moves decisively into the populated areas of
Latakia, this will be over. The loss of Latakia province would render the hope
of keeping a regime enclave intact no longer viable. It will raise the
possibility of the regime losing its control of Syria's coastline (vital for
Assad's Russian and Iranian backers).
This, in turn, could mean rebel
capture of the Tartus naval depot. Hence the deployment of the marines, who,
according to information available, have not yet been placed in forward
positions facing the rebels. Rather, they are gathered around Tartus for its
So the steady rebel advance in the
direction of Latakia is producing a Russian response of a volume and nature not
before witnessed on the Syrian battlefield.
Russian weaponry and Russian
diplomatic support have been the vital lifelines for Assad throughout the last
four years. Previous levels of support are no longer enough. So more is being
Still, the current indications do
not appear to suggest or presage a major conventional deployment of Russian
forces. That would go against the known pattern favored by President Vladimir
Rather, Russian assistance, while
on the increase, is likely to be limited to an active support role, perhaps
extending to the use of some air power, along with behind-the-scenes advisory
and training roles and the use of some specialized personnel in combat or combat
Meanwhile, as the Russians arrive
in Latakia, the rebel mopping up of remaining regime enclaves in Idlib province
adjoining Latakia is continuing.
A force of the Jaysh al-Fatah
(Army of Conquest) this week captured the last remaining regime air base in the
province, at Abu Zuhour.
Jaysh al-Fatah is a union of the
northwest's most powerful rebel groups. Prominent among its components is Jabhat
al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida. This coalition, supported by Turkey
and Qatar and armed with advanced weapons by Saudi Arabia, is altering the
military landscape of northwest Syria.
In the weeks ahead, the fighting
in northwest Hama and Latakia provinces looks set to intensify, with the Sunni
rebels seeking to push further toward the coast. Assad's benighted regime, aided
by its Russian and Iranian friends, will be throwing everything into the effort
to stop them. It remains to be seen if the Russian bear's increased pressure on
the scales will prove again sufficient to maintain the balance.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the
Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle